Fantasy and Reality: What is the Truth?
Dr. Karen Dill is a social psychologist who studies mass media, particularly violence, gender, and racial stereotyping, as well as positive aspects of media. Her new book, How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing Through Media Influence, argues against the premise that just because we understand that mass media stories are fantasies, they cannot affect our realities. In the excerpt below Dill introduces her argument, showing us how fantasy can indeed influence reality.
When I discuss the effects of exposure to mass media with various audiences, one of the comments I hear most often is that anyone old enough to “know the difference between fantasy and reality” is not affected by media content. In other words, fictional stories do not influence us because we “know they are not real.” This fantasy/ reality argument represents a major misunderstanding of the psychology of the media…
First, let’s look more closely at the words “fantasy” and “reality.” When an adult says she knows the difference between fantasy and reality, how is she defining each word? I think by fantasy she means fiction. According to dictionary.com, the word “fiction” has a variety of meanings. Fiction can mean a creation or an invention of the imagination. Fiction can mean a lie…When someone says media do not affect him because he knows the difference between fantasy and reality, I think he means by “reality” that people and situations on TV are contrived or invented. We know, for example, that the TV show Friends was a fictional story about the relationships and exploits of a group of twenty-somethings. In what ways is the story based in fiction rather than fact? Well, the adult audience is aware that the people in the stories are actors who are paid to play parts… The friends’ dialogue is the creation of professional writers.
…When we watch a fictional TV show, we’re essentially imagining “what if” these were real people and these situations and events really took place… to the extent that we believe these characters and their circumstances and relationships are plausible and valuable, we take an interest in them. To the extent that we buy into the fantasy, we are drawn into the show.
So where does the reality come in and what is a more meaningful definition of “reality ” in this context? The reality of a fictional story is not whether it is fantasy or a creation; it is whether it is believable and attractive… Paradoxically then, the best kind of fantasies are the ones that strike us as in some way real or genuine. I think one of the joys of experiencing really good fantasy and fiction is the very fact that they allow us to imagine “what if”- to feel as though a very interesting or gratifying story could be true.
…Studies have shown that if you build false information into a fictional narrative, people actually come to believe the false information. For example, in one study, German college students read a fictional story called “The Kidnapping” into which either true or false information had been inserted. A control…group read a comparable story without the assertions inserted. One true assertion was that exercise strengthens one’s heart and lungs. The false assertion was this statement’s opposite – that exercise weakens your heart and lungs. Results showed that the college students were persuaded by the factual information in the story regardless of whether the information was true or false… These researchers also studied a phenomenon called the sleeper effect – that persuasion through fictional narratives increases over time as the source of the information becomes remote. While at first the students’ confidence in their newly formed attitudes was relatively low, two weeks later their confidence had returned to baseline levels. What this research shows is that we can be persuaded to believe false information that is inserted into a fictional story. Also, over time, we forget where we learned this information and our confidence in its truth increases…
The theory explaining why people are persuaded by information in fictional stories is called transportation. People reading a book, watching a movie or TV show, or playing a video game become transported, swept up, or lost in the story, even feeling like they themselves are part of the story. This is one of the appealing properties of media.. When a fictional story transports us, we are persuaded rather uncritically because transportation decreases counterarguing (questioning assertions) and increases connections with the characters and the sense that the story has a reality to it. Engaging with a story means we have suspended our disbelief, and this facilitates our persuasion to points of view embedded in the story…
This discussion of fantasy and reality reminds me of a funny story line from the movie Galaxy Quest. Galaxy Quest is a good-natured spoof of popular science-fiction and its fans. Basically, Galaxy Quest asks what if Star Trek were real? In the film, the actors who play science fiction characters become embroiled in a real-life encounter with aliens and spaceships… the “commander” enlists the help of some extremely devoted fans he’s met at a sci-fi convention. Earlier in the story the fans had indicated that they knew the spaceship and its crew’s adventures weren’t real. However, when the commander needs their help, he tells them the news that those things that were supposed to fantasy really are real…I think fans of Star Trek…found this scene amusing because they’ve personally experienced what it’s like not only to wish that the fictional universe really existed but actually found it so compelling that somewhere deep in their psyches it really is real to them..
Speaking of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played the role of Lt. Uhuru on the original series, often speaks of another kind of reality her appearance on the show created. In the fictional universe of Star Trek, people believed in the notions of interracial harmony and equality. The ship’s officers who were form a variety of racial backgrounds exemplified these values. Nichols the actress has told of a conversation she had with late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which she told him she was thinking of quitting the show. Dr. King reportedly responded that she could not because her being in a respected position in this fictional story was affirming and uplifting for African Americans in America…having an African American officer on Star Trek was a real victory for civil rights.